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Coca and the Mountain
Observations into the Worldview of the Quechua of Panao

by Terry P. Smith

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In many of the examples I found of the relationship between the Quechua people and the Mountain, coca has played a significant role. The following section will focus on coca and its uses.

Coca, a source of debate

The coca leaf has generated a world-wide debate, at least since the Spanish conquest. Both Columbus and Vespucci observed and recorded its use by the natives in the regions of the Caribbean. Frey Vicente Velarde, bishop of Cuzco, wrote to the Spanish Crown in 1539 of coca's beneficial effects on the Indians who could work and walk all day long under the hot sun without suffering fatigue. The bishop's views were not shared by many of the clerics who believed that the use of coca would impede the Christianization of the Indians. As a result of the Council of Lima between 1567-1569, they wrote that coca was "useless, pernicious, and leads to superstition since it was a talisman of the devil." This conflict led King Felipe II to write back that the use of coca should be tolerated among the Indians but urged the priests to be constantly vigilant to prevent its use in superstitious practices of witchcraft.

In the early 1900s, Dr. Mortimer of New York wrote of the benefits of coca, and the Peruvian doctor Carlos Monge described it as being indispensable for life in the heights and rigors of the Andes Mountains. These voices were countered by Gutiérrez Noriega (1949) who wrote forcefully about "coca addicts" and with empirical data demonstrated that it was used by those with low I.Q.s. He also believed that poverty led to increased coca chewing which led to greater coca chewing to diminish hunger pains: a vicious cycle!

With advanced techniques of pharmacology, the current debate focuses on chemical compounds and physiological responses with only token mention made of the fact that coca is chewed by those who live in a world far removed from modern medical centers. Few investigators acknowledge that coca is a symbol of indigenous culture, Cabieses (1993) being a notable exception. But coca has figured prominently in the relationship between the Quechua man and the Mountain (Bray 1983:269). It is the essential ingredient offered to the Mountain. However, its function in Andean society is broader as will be demonstrated in the following paragraphs.

Coca's source of power

Coca has been a source of power for thousands of years. Its widespread use from Nicaragua in the north down to Chile in the south is well attested. Ceramics from various pre-Incan cultures preserve its record and have led to the conclusion that its use was limited to the elite, the religious functionaries. Its power served for divination as well as in rites of fertility and puberty, and it has been considered a deity in some cultures.

The Panao Quechua attribute coca's power to the Virgin Mary. This belief is wide-spread. The Panao Quechua relate that God made coca and gave it to the Virgin Mary when she lost her son, Jesus. Through the use of coca, Mary was able to inquire about his wellbeing. Others relate that in her distress, Mary grabbed the leaf of some bush, and it turned into coca. Allen (1988:220) reports, "…the myth that Mamacha Santísima María invented coca chewing while mourning for her lost child…" And a report in one of Peru's leading newspapers says that coca is the shadow of the Virgin. Proof of Mary's use of coca is demonstrated by the fact that "her teeth marks are still found on the underside of the leaves. And now we chew coca, making the sign of the cross in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." (Guillerma Sandoval Espiritu)

The belief that coca is alive and supernaturally empowered makes it an ideal medium for acquiring wealth, strength, information, and health. These functions and their associated rituals will be discussed below.

Coca, a source of revenue

The Panao Quechua's involvement in the production of coca is not a recent development. However, the focus on the production of coca for revenue is of recent origin. White (1989:11) indicates that a farmhand in the coca fields can earn twice the wage of a common laborer. There he may develop new fields, cultivate them, strip the leaves three or four times a year, and dry them for sale. While the government purchases some leaves for processing, the illicit cocaine industry's prices are much higher. A kilo of dried coca leaves yields approximately one gram of basic paste. This must be processed into cocaine hydrochloride which is reported to have a value of $45,000 per kilo and contributes to the industry which may be earning $5-6 billion a year.

Coca, then, as a source of revenue for the Quechua people is real. Historically it has been used as a medium of exchange between Andean communities as well as with jungle and coastal populations. Today the number of pickups and Volvo trucks as well as the many new houses of material noble (concrete and steel reinforcing rods) are evidence of incomes not generated through the sale of potatoes. But the income does continue to reinforce traditional values as those with economic resources are named as mayordomos to sponsor the major fiestas. Their generosity contributes to lavish celebrations which promote cultural values.

Coca as a source of strength

The etymology of the word coca is said to be Aymara, meaning 'a meal or the food of travelers and workers'. And historically its use as a source of strength has often been noted. McElroy (Boldó 1986: Chap.1) notes that it "alleviates feelings of fatigue, helps people keep warm and satisfies feelings of hunger." Burchard (1978:831) suggests that it accomplishes this by acting as a blood glucose regulator. The practice of keeping the quid between the cheek and gum may provide a natural slow-release environment moderating the hydrolysis of carbohydrates over an extended period of time, thus maintaining or restoring energy levels. Lacking the technological resources to scientifically prove the benefits of chewing coca, proof for the Quechua comes from their centuries of experience. And that experience has been formalized into the twenty-minute breaks of each workday's schedule. Before beginning work, a man chews coca and invokes the Mountain's help, saying, "I wonder if I will make my work multiply?" About 10:00 A.M. he takes the chrajchra break to make tiredness disappear. After the noon break and before beginning work again, he chews coca so that his strength will return. Then he takes the afternoon's break (mallway), taken about 3:00 P.M., and with renewed strength he works on till 5:00 P.M.

House finishing work (wasi ushyay) as well as during the wake (runa wañuy) are other times when the use of coca is a source of strength. On both of these occasions, the house owner portions out large quantities of coca (juntada) to give people strength as they celebrate the finishing of a house or mourn all through the night till dawn. Here we note other pharmacological effects of coca. Hulshof (Boldó 1986: Chap. 4) reports that coca stimulates the central nervous system provoking insomnia and restlessness, and it suppresses tiredness. That is just what is needed to keep a party going.

At these events, the male and female participants congregate separately, and after the homeowner has feasted the participants in the work party, coca is chewed, liquor is shared in minimal quantities, and stories and jokes are told through the night so that everyone laughs and has a good time. On these occasions, the Mountain's benevolence is not invoked.

These customs demonstrate that while some ritual may be observed in relationship to the Mountain, an important function of coca is to provide an effective stimulant.

Document created: June 6, 1997